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Let’s Eat: Flour, water, salt, wild yeast

A baker at Pinetree Catering talks about her love for sourdough.

Vincent Van Dough is Bailey Symington’s partner at work. He is a sourdough starter; a mixture of flour and water that hosts naturally occurring yeast and lactobacilli.

The lead baker at Pinetree Catering has been baking with sourdough for most of her career. “Working with sourdough is very different from yeasted bread,” Symington says. “They’re little living beings, really.”

Symington feeds “him” every day when she’s at work. “It’s like working with a human, a personality,” she explains. “It’s different every day. You have to take care of it, and it’s temperamental sometimes. It has attitude. They make fun of me at work because I always talk to him. Like how you talk to your plants and they grow better. It’s a sort of crazy relationship you have, and you try to make it work.”

The starter doesn’t get fed on Symington’s days off, so when the staff come in on Monday morning, they joke about how the starter had a party over the weekend, because it smells boozy from the hooch (liquid) on top. (Alcohol is a byproduct of yeast fermentation and when sourdough starter is not fed often enough, it is common for the alcohol smell to get stronger.)

Baking with sourdough is a much longer process than with commercially produced yeast. Symington usually starts at 4 a.m., making the dough, letting it sit (to hydrate the flours,) then doing a couple of pull and folds to build the gluten. The dough then ferments overnight, and she shapes and bakes the following morning. “It’s a 24-hour process,” she says.

The Sapling (Pinetree Catering’s bakery, at the Thunder Bay Country Market) and the Nomad on Bay (its location on Bay Street) sells a “classic sourdough,” made with the addition of rye and whole wheat flours from Brule Creek Farm. Dawson General Store, on the corner of Mapleward Road and Dawson Road, also stocks artisanal bread.

Pinetree Catering had been doing sourdough baking since March 2017, when Megan Paxton expanded baking at the catering company, resulting in the Sapling. When Paxton moved away, Symington stepped into the role of lead baker. “I got to take over everything,” Symington says happily. She has been baking bread since she was a child, but she got into sourdough as an adult, having learned from a baker in Toronto where she previously worked.

Before the pandemic hit, Symington did weekly special breads, such as the “fire loaf” with smoked paprika, turmeric and jalapeños. Another popular one was the “starry night,” with apricots and blue pea flower. She still occasionally bakes some special loaves, and posts photos on social media to let customers know.

When COVID restrictions forced people to stay at home, a lot of Symington’s family and friends started baking with sourdough, she says. While making a starter from scratch (just water and flour) can take weeks, the Sapling sells some of its established, healthy and bubbling starter at the Thunder Bay Country Market. “A lot of people were interested in it, which is amazing,” she says.

During the yeast shortage last year, Pinetree Catering was reassured by the fact that Symington is an experienced sourdough baker, so if they ran out of yeast completely, they would still be able to bake bread.

“I like to do very old fashioned rustic loaves,” she says, “the heavier, rustic, artisan style [with] crusty outsides.”